A news collective films the first rough draft of history

Unicorn Riot reporters filmed an Enbridge pipeline protest. (Screen grab courtesy Unicorn Riot)

By Ellen Clegg

After George Floyd’s murder last year ignited protests across the country, Troy Patterson, writing in The New Yorker, observed that despite a glut of cable news coverage, viewers might “still feel starved for context.” While it is a “moral duty to witness the scenes of uprising,” he wrote, a shift in focus could help viewers make sense of the sometimes chaotic scenes that were unfolding on their streets. “It may be wiser to attend to this nationwide conflagration as a local news story,” he wrote, and went on to commend one outlet doing just that: Unicorn Riot, a free-ranging, non-hierarchical media collective, was providing video feeds from protests in a number of communities and continuously updating them with interviews from local residents.

I checked in with Dan Feidt, a reporter/producer for Unicorn Riot who helped launch the site in 2015. Feidt, a web developer living in Boston, had seen the power of on-the-ground reporting that provided an alternative point of view during the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. Feidt and others set up video channels to stream live media from Occupy encampments. “The audio was a kind of murmuring buzz of activity—the sound was really intriguing, and putting it out live had a  grip on people’s attention, and it spread really fast,” he said. He was inspired: “Let’s take the lessons we learned and try to do live video, but also written pieces, investigations, FOIA requests … and let’s make it non-commercial and nonprofit.”

In 2015, Unicorn Riot was started on a shoestring; in 2019, revenue amounted to just over $115,000, from audience donations. In addition to investments in video equipment, Unicorn Riot had to buy helmets and flak jackets after reporters were injured by flash-bang grenades and rubber projectiles launched by police during protests after Floyd’s murder. 

Current staffing levels are small—about 10 people—with reporters in Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Denver, and South Africa. Freelancers contribute as events warrant. There’s no both-sides-ism here. Unicorn Riot is committed to amplifying marginalized voices, to elevating social justice campaigns—on July 1, Unicorn Riot videographers were recording as climate activists put their bodies in front of heavy equipment to stop construction of an Enbridge tar sands pipeline. In a media-saturated culture, where audiences are used to packaged television broadcasts on the one hand, or the maddeningly fractal ecosystem of Twitter on the other, there’s value in watching a raw, live video feed, observing the size of the giant pipeline drill bit, and weighing the conviction it must take to get in its way. There’s foreign coverage, too. In a recent story, contributor Emici Thug conducts a Q&A with a Brazilian poet participating in the nationwide protests against President Jair Messias Bolsonaro.

“I think there’s a huge problem with generational access in the media in the United States,” Feidt said. “I don’t think that millennials have much access to newspaper editorial pages or analysis and commentary in media institutions. Because we actually did try to talk to young people, our stuff came across so differently. There’s a lot going on, and you’re not hearing from them anywhere.”

More than 100 years ago, writing in The New Republic, journalist Walter Lippmann and his co-author Charles Merz asserted that “a sound public opinion cannot exist without access to the news.” It’s unclear what Lippmann might make of Unicorn Riot, but the site’s raw feeds from protests around the country and around the world are nothing less than a first rough draft of history. 

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